Book review: Switch: How to change things when change is hard

Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2010)
Publisher: Crown Business

Reviewed by Suzanne Kennedy
Chief Policy Adviser, Department of Corrections

Reviewer biography:
Suzanne Kennedy joined the Department in 2010 and has led various policy and legislative initiatives to improve public safety. Suzanne has over 20 years experience working in senior policy management roles in health, education, primary industries and ACC. Suzanne has a Master of Public Policy degree from Victoria University, focused on economics, public law, public management, and strategic management.

Anyone who aims to fix wicked problems in the criminal justice system knows that change is hard. The incentives that drive human behaviour are complex and the levers available to policy makers are limited. This is where Switch: how to change things when change is hard provides some innovative tools that are worth considering when tackling complex policy problems. Like many of the leading behavioural insights books emerging recently, such as Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness; Thinking Fast and Slow; and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, this book challenges our understanding of knowledge, meaning and behaviour. It is riveting reading.

Through the rich use of imagery, stacks of evidence and straightforward tools, the authors provide options to change human behaviours that can be implemented immediately. They invite us to imagine changing human behaviour as akin to the nimble rider of a large elephant attempting to set the direction of travel. The rider is smart and driven, knows where she wants to go, but is prone to give up easily and does not have limitless self-control. The elephant is hard to shift and requires significant motivation but with the right reason, can become unstoppable. What does this mean and why does it matter?

A slew of interesting evidence is worked through that suggests that our environment has a significant part to play in our behaviours. Did you know that the amount of food you eat, irrespective of how good the food is or how hungry you are, is related to the size of the plate? The authors argue that “what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem”. Get the path right for the elephant – your unmotivated self or a hard to reach target population – and the elephant will willingly follow. Add some great motivators, like success, and you are on your way.

The authors’ framework for successful change is not the standard linear model of “analyse – think – change” but rather a deeper “see – feel – change” approach. It follows the lead of Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge and argues for a theory of human behaviour that is less guided by rational economic agents than the meandering, fuzzy, disorganised experience of normal life.

The Switch framework for change has three key elements: Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant, and Shape the Path.

Direct the Rider

The first step to successful change is to Direct the Rider. This means getting really specific and concrete in terms of where you are heading or what is expected with the change being negotiated. If you are unsure or stuck in terms of direction or the problem is too complex, they suggest we follow the bright spots and investigate what is working and then replicate it. An example of what is working in New Zealand’s justice sector is the Out of Gate navigator service that connects recently released offenders to services in the community that support their reintegration. Once you have identified where you want to head, then script the critical moves. The authors advocate thinking in terms of specific behaviours rather than engaging in more abstract big picture thinking. For example, identify what is the one thing that you need to do to make the change and do that. This is the antidote for decision paralysis.

Motivate the Elephant

Once the direction is clearly set, then we need to harness motivation. The best motivator is to find the feeling. If we simply know intellectually something to be true, such as the numerous health and fitness goals that most people set each New Year’s Eve and fail to carry out, knowing something is often not sufficient to achieve sustained change. We need to find a deeper emotion to drive behaviour change.

“In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others to see the problem or solution in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.”

How this might happen could be when you get “a disturbing look at the problem, or a hopeful glimpse of the solution, or a sobering reflection on your current habits”. Change driven by feeling overcomes natural inertia. Harness that emotion and then shrink the change by dealing with challenging problems that inspire dread, such as writing that report or cleaning that overflowing garage, by assuring the elephant that the task won’t be so bad. The authors reference a great self-help tool here called the “Five Minute Room Rescue” proposed by a home organising expert. The idea is to set a defined period of time, say five minutes, to focus on a specific room. The elephant gets moving and often, once in motion, keeps at the task. When trying to motivate your family or team members, help to grow your people by helping others to keep the momentum going by letting them know that they have already made great progress towards the goal and help them to identify with a positive, growth mind-set.

Shape the path

People often attribute problems to character flaws in others when in fact, problems are often situational. The Fundamental Attribution Error is our inclination to attribute people’s behaviour to the way they are rather than to the situation that they are in. The authors note that people are “incredibly sensitive to the environment and culture”. We are herd animals so we need to tweak the environment. They reference the study of drug addiction of US soldiers. Twenty percent of Vietnam soldiers became addicted to drugs as heroin use was the norm in the combat environment. Interestingly, however, the researchers who followed up these Vietnam veterans who returned to their normal lives back in the United States found that only 1% remain addicted to drugs after 12 months and this was despite no rehabilitation having been provided. Why? The ex-soldiers returned to their drug-free identities, they had environmental cues that no longer supported drug use and they had rich alternative activities involving non-drug associated family and friends.

An easy way to help achieve change then, is to make the journey easier by changing the environment. A classic example of this concept is the use of automatic enrolment policies in saving schemes, for example, the KiwiSaver scheme. No longer are people hopeless savers – easy!

Once you have changed the environment, look to make positive change automatic by building habits. Great leaders help teams to progress by instilling habits that reinforce shared goals. A good example is the use of stand up meetings when the goal of clear and efficient communication across a team of people is required. In addition to establishing shared habits, adapting behaviour change at the group level can be achieved by rallying the herd by setting new behavioural norms at the societal level. Because we instinctively try to fit into our peer group, change is contagious.